The Awakened Mage
Kingmaker, Kingbreaker - Book 2
The excerpt immediately below is Chapter One of Innocence Lost. (The Awakened Mage in the UK and US) It gives away what happens at the end of The Innocent Mage so if you haven’t read that, then don’t read any further!
Okay! Here we go ...
BELOW THERE BE SPOILERS!!!!
With one callused hand shading his eyes, Asher stood on the Tower's sandstone steps and watched the touring carriage with its royal cargo and Master Magician Durm bowl down the driveway, sweep around the bend in the road and disappear from sight. Then he heaved a rib-creaking sigh, turned on his heel and marched back inside. Darran and Willer weren't about, so he left a note saying where Gar had gone and continued on his way.
The trouble with princes he decided, as he thudded up the spiral staircase, was they could go gallivanting off on picnics in the countryside whenever the fancy struck and nobody could stop them. They could say, ‘Oh look, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, who cares about responsibilities today? I think I’ll go romp amongst the bluebells for an hour or three, tra la tra la.’
And the trouble with working for princes, he added to himself as he pushed his study door open and stared in heart-sinking dismay at the piles of letters, memorandums and schedules that hadn’t magically disappeared from his desk while he was gone, damn it, was that you never got to share in that kind of careless luxury. Some poor fool had to care about those merrily abandoned responsibilities, and just now that poor fool went by the name of Asher.
With a gusty sigh he kicked the door shut, slid reluctantly into his chair and got back to work.
Acridly drowning in Meister Glospottle’s pestilent piss problems, he didn’t notice time passing as the day’s light drained slowly from the sky. He didn’t even realize he was no longer alone in his office until a hand pressed his shoulder and a voice said, ‘Asher? Are you dreamstruck? What’s her name?’
Startled, he dropped his pen and spun about in the chair. ‘Matt! Y’daft blot! You tryin’ to give me a heart spasm?’
‘No, I’m trying to get your attention,’ said Matt. He was half grinning, half concerned. ‘I knocked and knocked till I bruised my knuckles and then I called your name. Twice. What’s so important it’s turned you deaf?’
‘Urine,’ he said sourly. ‘You got any?’
Matt blinked. ‘Well, no. Not on me. Not as such.’
‘Then you’re no bloody use. You might as well push off.’
The thing he liked best about Matt was the stable meister’s reassuring aura of unflappability. A man could be as persnickety as he liked and all Matt would ever do was smile. The way he was smiling now. ‘And if I ask why you’re in such desperate need of urine, will I be sorry?’
Suddenly aware of stiff muscles and a looming headache, Asher shoved his chair back and stomped around his office. Ha! His cage. ‘Prob’ly. I know I bloody am. Urine’s for gettin’ rid of into the nearest chamber pot, not for hoardin’ like a miser with gold.’
Matt was looking bemused. ‘Since when did you have the urge to hoard urine?’
‘Since never! It’s bloody Indigo Glospottle’s got the urge, not me.’
‘I know I’ll regret asking this, but how in Barl’s name could any man have a shortage of urine?’
‘By bein’ too clever for his own damned good, that’s how!’ He propped himself on the windowsill, scowling. ‘Indigo Glospottle fancies himself something of an artiste, y’see. Good ole-fashioned cloth dyein’ like his da did, and his da’s da afore him, that ain’t good enough for Meister Indigo Glospottle. No. Meister Indigo Glospottle’s got to go and think up new ways of dyein’ cloth and wool and suchlike, ain’t he?’
‘Well,’ said Matt, being fair, ‘you can’t blame the man for trying to improve his business.’
‘Yes, I can!’ he retorted. ‘When him improvin’ his business turns into me losin’ precious sleep over another man’s urine, you’d better bloody believe I can!’ Viciously mimicking, he screwed up his face into Indigo Glospottle’s permanently piss-strangled expression and fluted his voice in imitation. ‘“Oh, Meister Asher! The blues are so blue and the reds are so red! My customers can’t get enough of them! But it’s all in the piddle, you see!” Can you believe it? Bloody man can’t even bring himself to say piss! He’s got to say piddle. Like that’ll mean it don’t stink as much. “I need more piddle, Meister Asher! You must find me more piddle!” Because the thing is, y’see, these precious new ways of his use up twice as much piss as the old ways, don’t they? And since he’s put all the other guild members’ noses out of joint with his fancy secret dyein’ recipe, they’ve pulled strings to make sure he can’t get all the urine he needs. Now he reckons the only way he’s goin’ to meet demand is by going door to door with a bucket in one hand and a bottle in the other sayin’, “Excuse me, sir and madam, would you care to make a donation?” And for some strange reason, he ain’t too keen on that idea!’
Matt gave a whoop of laughter and collapsed against the nearest bit of empty wall. ‘Asher!’
Despite his irritation, Asher felt his own lips twitch. 'Aye, well, I s’pose I’d be laughin’ too if the fool hadn’t gone and made his problem my problem. But he has, so I ain’t much in the mood for feelin’ amused just now.’
Matt sobered. ‘I’m sorry. It all sounds very vexing.’
‘It’s worse than that,’ he said, shuddering. ‘If I can’t get Glospottle and the guild to reach terms, the whole mess’ll end up in Justice Hall. Gar’ll skin me alive if that happens. He’s got hisself so caught up in his magic the last thing he wants is trouble at Justice Hall. Last thing I want is trouble at Justice Hall, ’cause the way he’s been lately he’ll bloody tell me to take care of it. Me! Sittin’ in that gold chair in front of all those folk, passing judgment like I know what I’m on about! I never signed up for Justice Hall. That’s Gar’s job. And the sooner he remembers that, and forgets all this magic codswallop, the happier I’ll be.’
The smile faded from Matt’s face. ‘What if he can’t forget — or doesn’t want to? He’s the king’s firstborn son and he’s found his magic, Asher. Everything’s different now. You know that.’
Asher scowled. Aye, he knew it. But that didn’t mean he had to like it. Or think about it overmuch, either. Damn it, he wasn’t even supposed to be here! He was supposed to be down south on the coast arguing with Da over the best fishing boat to buy and plotting how to outsell his sinkin’ brothers three to one. Dorana was meant to be a fast-fading memory by now.
But that dream was dead and so was Da, both smashed to pieces in a storm of ill luck. And he was stuck here, in the City. In the Tower. In his unwanted life as Asher the bloody Acting Olken Administrator. Stuck with Indigo bloody Glospottle and his stinking bloody piss problems.
He met Matt’s concerned gaze with a truculent defiance. ‘Different for him, but not for me. He pays me, Matt. He don’t own me.’
‘No. But in truth, Asher, the way things stand for you now — where else could you go?’
Matt’s tentative question stabbed like a knife. 'Anywhere I bloody like! My brothers don’t own me any more than Gar does! I’m back here for now, not for good. Zeth or no Zeth, I were born a fisherman and I’ll die one like my da did afore me.’
‘I hope you do, Asher,’ Matt said softly. ‘There are worse ways to die, I think.’ Then he shook himself free of melancholy. ‘Now. Speaking of His Highness, do you know where he is? We’ve a meeting planned but I can’t find him.’
‘Did you look in his office? His library?’
Matt huffed, exasperated. ‘I looked everywhere.’
‘Ask Darran. When it comes to Gar the ole fart’s got eyes in the back of his head.’
‘Darran’s out. But Willer’s here, the pompous little weasel, and he hasn’t seen His Highness either. He said something about a picnic?’
Asher shifted on the windowsill and looked outside. Late afternoon sunshine gilded the trees’ autumn-bronzed leaves and glinted off the stables’ rooftops. 'That was hours ago. They can’t still be at the Eyrie. They didn’t have that much food with ’em, and it only takes five minutes to admire the view. After that it’s just sittin’ around makin’ small talk and pretendin’ Fane don’t hate Gar’s guts, ain’t it? Prob’ly they went straight back to the palace and he’s locked hisself up in the magic room with Durm and forgotten all about you.’
‘No, I’m afraid he hasn’t.’
Darran. Pale and self-contained, he stood in the open doorway. Nothing untoward showed in his face, but Asher felt a needle of fright prick him between the ribs.
He exchanged glances with Matt, and slid off the windowsill. ‘What?’ he said roughly. ‘What’re you witterin’ on about now?’
‘I am not wittering,’ Darran replied. ‘I’ve just come back from business at the palace. The royal family and the Master Magician are not there. Their carriage has yet to return.’
Again, Asher glanced out of the window into the rapidly cooling afternoon. ‘Are you sure?’
Darran’s lips thinned. ‘Perfectly.’
Another needle prick, sharper this time. ‘So what’re you sayin’? You sayin’ they got lost between here and Salbert’s Eyrie?’
Darran’s hands were behind his black velvet back. Something in the set of his shoulders suggested they were clutched tightly together. ‘I am saying nothing. I am asking if you can think of a reason why the carriage’s return might have been so severely delayed. His Majesty was expected for a public park committee meeting an hour ago. There was some … surprise … at his absence.’
Asher bit off a curse. ‘Don’t tell me you ran around bleatin’ about the carriage bein’ delayed! You know what those ole biddies are like, Darran, they’ll —’
‘Of course I didn’t. I’m old but not yet addled,’ said Darran. ‘I informed the committee that His Majesty had been detained with Prince Gar and the Master Magician in matters of a magical nature. They happily accepted the explanation, the meeting continued without further disruption and I returned here immediately.’
Grudgingly, Asher gave a nod of approval. ‘Good.’
‘And now I’ll ask you again,’ said Darran, unimpressed by the approval. ‘Can you think of any reason why the carriage hasn’t yet returned?’
The needle was stabbing quick and hard now, in time with his pounding heart. ‘Could be a wheel came off, held ’em up.’
Darran snorted. ‘Any one of them could fix that in a matter of moments with a spell.’
‘He’s right,’ said Matt.
‘Lame horse, then. A stone in the shoe, or a twisted fetlock.’
Matt shook his head. ‘His Highness would’ve ridden the other one back here to get a replacement.’
‘You’re being ridiculous, Asher,’ said Darran. ‘Clutching at exceedingly flimsy straws. So I shall say aloud what we all know we’re thinking. There’s been an accident.’
‘Accident my arse!’ he snapped. ‘You’re guessin’, and guessin’ wrong, I’ll bet you anything you like. What kind of an accident could they have trotting to Salbert’s Eyrie and back, eh? We’re talking about all the most powerful magicians in the kingdom sittin’ side by side in the same bloody carriage! There ain’t an accident in the world that could touch ’em!’
‘Very well,’ said Darran. ‘The only other explanation, then, is … not an accident.’
It took Asher a moment to realize what he meant. ‘What? Don’t be daft! As if anybody would — as if there were even a reason — y’silly ole fool! Flappin’ your lips like laundry on a line! They’re late, is all. Got ’emselves sidetracked! Decided to go sightseeing further on from the Eyrie and got all carried away! You’ll see! Gar’ll be bouncing up the staircase any minute now! You’ll see!’
There was a moment of held breaths, as all three of them waited for the sound of eager, tapping boot heels and a charming royal apology.
‘Look, Asher,’ said Matt, smiling uneasily, ‘you’re most likely right. But to put Darran’s mind at rest, why don’t you and I ride out to the Eyrie? Chances are we’ll meet them on their way back and they’ll have a good old laugh at us for worrying.’
‘An excellent suggestion,’ said Darran. ‘I was about to make it myself. Go now. And if — when — you do encounter them, one of you ride back here immediately so I may send messages to the palace in case tactless tongues are still wagging.’
Scowling, Asher nodded. He didn’t know which was worse: Darran being right or the needle of fright now lodged so hard and deep in his flesh he could barely breathe.
‘Well?’ demanded Darran. He sounded almost shrill. ‘Why are you both still standing there like tree stumps? Go!’
Twenty minutes later they were cantering in circumspect silence along the road that led to Salbert’s Eyrie. The day’s slow dying cast long shadows before them.
‘There’s the sign for the Eyrie,’ shouted Matt, jerking his chin as they pounded by. ‘It’s getting late, Asher. We should’ve met them by now. This is the only road in or out and the gates at the turn-off were still closed. Surely the king would’ve left them open if they’d gone on somewhere else from here?’
‘Maybe,’ Asher shouted back. His cold hands tightened on the reins. ‘Maybe not. Who can tell with royalty? At least there’s no sign of an accident.’
‘So far,’ said Matt.
They urged their horses onwards with ungentle heels, hearts hammering in time with the dull hollow drumming of hooves. Swept round a gradual, left-handed bend into a stretch of road dotted either side with trees.
Matt pointed. ‘Barl save me! Is that —’
‘Aye!’ said Asher, and swallowed sudden nausea.
Gar. Lying half in the road, half on its grassy border. Unconscious . . . or dead.
As one he and Matt hauled against their horses’ mouths and came to a squealing, grunting, head-tossing halt. Asher threw himself from his saddle and stumbled to Gar’s side, as Matt grabbed Cygnet’s reins to stop the horse from bolting.
Blood and dirt and the green smears of crushed grass marked Gar’s skin, his clothes. Shirt and breeches were torn. The flesh beneath them was torn. 'He’s alive,’ Asher said shakily, fingers pressed to the leaping pulse beneath Gar’s jaw. Then he ran unsteady hands over the prince’s inert body. ‘Out cold, though. Could be his collarbone’s busted. And there’s cuts and bruises aplenty, too.’ His fingers explored Gar’s skull. 'Got some bumps on his noggin, but I don’t think his skull’s cracked.’
‘Flesh and bone heal,’ said Matt, and dragged a shirt sleeve across his wet face. ‘Praise Barl he’s not dead.’
‘Aye,’ said Asher, and took a moment, just a moment, to breathe. When he could, he looked up. Struggled for lightness. ‘Bloody Darran. He’ll be bleating “I told you so” for a month of Barl’s Days now.’
Matt didn’t laugh. Didn’t even smile. ‘If the prince is here,’ he said grimly, his horseman’s hands white knuckled, ‘then where are the others?’
Their eyes met, dreading answers.
‘Reckon we’d best find out,’ said Asher. He shrugged off his jacket, folded it and settled Gar’s head gently back to the cushioned ground. Tried to arrange his left arm more comfortably, mindful of the hurt shoulder. ‘He’ll be right, by and by. Let’s go.’
Remounting, he jogged knee to knee with Matt round the next sweeping bend. Battled fear and a mounting sense of dread. Cygnet pinned his ears back, sensing trouble.
They found Durm next, sprawled in the middle of the road. As unconscious as Gar, but in an even bloodier and broken condition.
‘Busted his arm, and his leg,’ said Asher, feeling ill as he dismounted and ran his hands over Durm’s limbs. The Master Magician’s body was like a wet sack filled with smashed crockery. ‘Damn. Make that both legs. There be bits of bone stickin’ out everywhere. And his head’s laid open like a boiled egg for breakfast. It’s a miracle he ain’t leaked out all his blood like a bucket with a hole in it.’
Matt swallowed. ‘But he’s alive?’
‘For now,’ Asher said, and got wearily to his feet. Looked further down the road for the first time — and felt the world tilt around him.
‘What?’ said Matt, startled.
‘The Eyrie,’ he whispered, pointing, and had to steady himself against Cygnet’s solid shoulder.
Not even approaching dusk could hide it. The splintered gap in the timber fence at the edge of the Eyrie — wide enough for a carriage to gallop straight through.
Matt shook his head. ‘Barl save us. They can’t have.’
Asher didn’t want to believe it either. Sick fear made him more brutal than Matt deserved. ‘Then where’s the carriage? The horses? The family?’
‘No. No, they can’t have,’ Matt insisted. He sounded years younger, and close to tears.
‘I reckon they did,’ Asher replied, numb, and dropped his reins. Obedient, resigned, Cygnet lowered his head and tugged at the grass verge, bit jangling. Asher broke into a ragged run towards the edge of the lookout.
‘Don’t,’ said Matt. ‘We’re losing the light, you fool, it’s too dangerous!’
The voice of reason had no place here. He heard Matt curse, and slide off his own horse. Shout after him. ‘Asher, for the love of Barl, stay back! If they are down there, we can’t help them. If they went over the Eyrie they’re dead for sure! Asher! Are you listening?’
Heedless, he flung himself to the ground and peered over the drop. ‘I can see somethin’. Maybe a wheel. It’s hard to say. At any rate there’s a kind of ledge, stickin’ out.’ He wriggled backwards and sat up. Stared at Matt. ‘I don’t reckon they went all the way to the bottom. I’m goin’ down there.’
Appalled, Matt grabbed his shoulders, tried to drag him to his feet. ‘You can’t!’
He wrenched himself free and stood. ‘Get back to the Tower, Matt. Tell Darran. Get help. We need pothers, wagons, ropes. Light.’
Matt stared. ‘I’m not leaving you alone here to do Barl knows what kind of craziness!’
Damn it, what was wrong with the man? Couldn’t he see? ‘You got to, Matt,’ he insisted. ‘Like you say, we’re losing the light. If they are down there and they ain’t all dead, we can’t wait till mornin’ to find out. They’d never last the night.’
‘You can’t think anyone could survive this?’
‘There’s only one way to find out. Now what say you stop wastin’ time, eh? Might be they are all dead down there, but we got livin’ folk hurt up here, and I don’t know how long that maggoty ole Durm’s goin’ to keep breathing without a good pother to help him. I’ll be fine, Matt. Just go.’
Matt’s expression was anguished. ‘Asher, no … you can’t risk yourself. You mustn’t. I’ll do it.’
‘You can’t. You’re near on a foot taller than me and two stone heavier, at least. I don’t know how safe the ground is on the side of that mountain, but a lighter man’s got to have a better chance.’ Matt just stared at him, begging to be hit. ‘Look, you stupid bastard, every minute we stand here arguin’ is a minute wasted. Just get on your bloody horse, would you, and ride!’
Matt shook his head. ‘Asher —’
Out of time and patience, he leapt forward and shoved Matt in the chest, hard. ‘You need me to make it an order? Fine! It’s an order! Go!’
Matt was beaten, and he knew it. ‘All right,’ he said, despairing. ‘But be careful. I’ve got Dathne to answer to, remember, and she’ll skin me alive if anything happens to you.’
‘And I’ll skin you alive if you don’t get out of here,’ he retorted. ‘Tie Cygnet to a tree so he don’t follow you. I ain’t keen on walkin’ back to the Tower.’
‘Promise me I won’t regret this,’ said Matt, backing away. His scowl would’ve turned fresh milk.
‘See you soon.’
Matt stopped. ‘Asher —’
‘Sink me, do I have to throw you on the damned horse mys—’
‘No, wait!’ Matt said, holding up his hands. ‘Wait. What about Matcher?’
He lowered his fists. ‘What about ’im?’
‘He’s got a family, they’ll worry, start a fuss —’
Damn. Matt was right. ‘Stall ’em. Send a lad with a message to say he’s got hisself delayed at the palace. That should hold his wife till we can —’
‘You mean lie to her? Asher, I can’t!’
Barl bloody save him from decent men. ‘You have to. We got to keep this as secret as we can for as long as we can, Matt. Think. If we don’t keep her fooled for the next little while —’
‘All right,’ said Matt. ‘I’ll take care of it. I’ll lie.’ His face twisted, as though he tasted something bitter. Almost to himself he added, ‘I’m getting good at it.’
There wasn’t time to puzzle out what he meant. ‘Hurry, Matt. Please.’
He watched his friend run back to the horses; anchored Cygnet to a sturdy sapling then vaulted into his own saddle. The urgent hoof beats, retreating, echoed round the valley. Then, under a dusking sky lavished lavender and crimson and gold, Asher eased himself over the edge of Salbert’s Eyrie.
It was a sinkin’ long way down to the hidden valley floor.
Don’t look, then, you pukin’ fool. Take it one step at a time. You can do that, can’t you? One bloody step at a time.
The rock-strewn ground at first sloped gradually, deceptively. Beneath his boot heels gravel and loose earth, so that he slipped and slid and skidded, stripping skin from his hands as he grappled stunted bushes and sharp-sided boulders to slow his descent. His eyes stung with sweat and his mouth clogged dry with fear. The air was tangy and fresh, no crowded City smells tainting, flavouring. It struck chill through his thin silk shirt, goosebumping his sweat-sticky flesh.
Further down into the valley he went, and then further still. Every dislodged rock and pebble rang sound and echo from the vast space below and around him. Startled birds took to the air, harshly protesting, or scolded him invisibly from the Eyrie’s dense encroaching foliage.
He reached a small cliff, a sheer-faced drop of some five feet that looked to give way first to a sharply sloped terrace and from there to a natural platform jutting out over the depths of the valley. Most of the platform itself was obscured by shadow and rocky outcrops, but he was sure now he could see the edge of a wheel, tip-tilted into the air.
If the carriage had landed anywhere other than the hidden valley floor, it would be there. Beyond the edge of the platform was nothing but empty space and the shrieking of eagles.
Five feet. He’d jumped off walls as high without thinking twice. Jumped laughing. Now, belly-down and crawling, he eased himself feet first and backwards over the edge, tapping his toes for cracks in the cliff face, burying his ragged, bloody fingernails in the loose shale as he scrabbled for purchase.
If he fell … if he fell …
Safely down, he had to stop, still holding onto the cliff edge, sucking air, near paralyzed with fright. That sharp little needle had returned and was jabbing, jabbing. His ribs hurt, and his lungs and his head. All the cuts and scratches on his fingers, his palms, his cheek and his knee burned, bleeding.
Eventually recovered, the needle withdrawn and his various pains subsided, he let go of the cliff. Turned inch by tiny inch to press his shoulder blades against the rock and look where next to tread … and felt his heart crack wide with grief.
So. His eyes had not misled him.
It was indeed a wheel, and more than a wheel. It was two wheels, and most of an ornate, painted carriage. It was a brown horse, and sundered harness, and a man, and a woman, and a girl. He closed his eyes, choking. Saw a broken mast and another broken man. ‘Da,’ he whispered. ‘Oh, Da … ’
Ice cold to the marrow, shaking, he continued his descent.
There was blood everywhere, much of it spilled from the shattered horse. Splashed across the rocks, pooled in the hollows, congealing beneath the stunted, scrubby bushes that clung to life on this last ledge before the dreadful drop to the valley floor, it soaked the air in a scarlet pungency.
Staring over the platform’s edge Asher saw treetops like a carpet and the white specks of birds, wheeling. There was no sign of the second carriage horse or Coachman Matcher. A fine fellow, he was. Had been. Married with two children, son and daughter. Peytr was allergic to horses and Lillie had the finest pair of hands on the reins the City had ever seen.
Or so said Matcher, her doting father.
Despairing, he turned away from the pitiless chasm yawning at his feet and faced instead the death he could see. Smell. Touch.
Borne was pinned beneath the splintered remnants of the carriage. His long lean body had been crushed to a thinness, and one side of his face was caved in. He looked as though he wore a bright red wig. Dana lay some three feet to his left, impaled through chest and abdomen by branches smashed into javelins. The impact had twisted her so that she lay half on her side, with her fine-boned face turned away. It meant he couldn’t see her eyes. He was glad.
And Fane … beautiful, brilliant, impossible Fane had been flung almost to the very edge of the narrow rock shelf; one slender white hand, unmarked, dangled out into space, the diamonds on her fingers catching fire in the sun’s sinking light. Her cheek rested on that outstretched arm, she might have been sleeping, only sleeping, anyone finding her so might think her whole and unharmed … if they did not see the jellied crimson pool beneath her slender torso, or the eerie translucence of her lovely unpowdered face. Her eyes were half open, wholly unseeing; the lashes, darkened by some magic known only to women, thick and long and bewitchingly alluring, as she had been alluring, lay a tracery of shadow upon her delicate skin.
There was a fly, crawling between her softly parted lips.
For the longest time he just stood there, waiting. In a moment, one of ’em will move. In a moment, one of ’em will breathe. Or blink. In a moment, I’ll wake up and all this will be nowt but a damned stupid ale-born dream.
In a moment.
He came to understand, at last, that there were no more moments. That not one of them would move, or breathe, or blink again. That he was already awake, and this was not a dream.
Memories came then, glowing like embers at the heart of a dying fire. ‘Welcome, Asher. My son speaks so highly of you I just know we’ll be the greatest of friends.’ Dana, Queen of Lur. Accepting his untutored bow and clumsy greeting as though he’d gifted her with perfumed roses and a diamond beyond price or purchase. Her unconstrained laughter, her listening silences. The way her eyes smiled in even the gravest of moments, a smile that said I know you. I trust you. Trust me.
Borne, his sallow cheeks silvered with tears. ‘What does my kingdom hold that I can give you? He is my precious son and you saved him. For his mother. For me. For us all. You’ve lost your father, I’m told. I grieve with you. Shall I stand in his stead, Asher? Offer you a father’s words of wisdom if ever you need to hear them spoken? May I do that? Let me.’
And Fane, who smiled only if she thought it might do some damage. Who never knew herself well enough to know that beneath malice lay desire. Who was beautiful in every single way, save the one that mattered most.
Dead, dead and dead.
Bludgeoned to tearless silence, he stayed with them until to stay longer would be foolish. Stayed until the cold and dark from the valley floor crept up and over the lip of the ledge and sank icy teeth into his flesh. Until he remembered the last living member of this family, who had yet to be told he was the last.
Remembering that, he left them, reluctantly, and slowly climbed back up the side of the mountain.